The Fire Service Vs. The Business Suits

If you visit Washington, DC in the foreseeable future, you might notice a queue of people wearing business suits in front of the Capitol Hill. These are lobbyists, many of whom represent companies and special interests looking for the billions of dollars Congress and the administration will spend on homeland security. They arrive early, and don't leave until they can return to their clients with some assurance of future federal funding.

OK, the long line might be a hyperbole. But I can assure you that just as the sun rises in the east and sets in the west, members of Congress are being cornered and cajoled by the beltway bandits, most of whom have no background in public safety but that doesn't prevent them from telling members of Congress what's best for you. A number of them have knocked on my door seeking our endorsements to strengthen their sales pitch on Capitol Hill. Some bring their prototype equipment. Others bring videos, info packets or power point presentations. I listen intently to their pitch. However, when I explain to them our role as a policy institute, not a marketing platform for industry, the meetings quickly enter the homestretch.

There are a number of companies that have made an effort to solicit ideas and work in partnership with public safety in developing their technologies and services. I tip my hat to them for their approach. Many are well established, companies that pride themselves on service and loyalty. To them I say, don't change your course.

Why do I share this information with you, the fire service? Because you need to know how the game is played in Washington. In Washington, policy is not always dictated by common sense, but rather dollars and cents. And often times it's the individuals wearing the business suits standing in line in front of the Capitol with money dangling from their pockets who gain access to the decision makers and influence outcomes. Sad but true.

They do not sit passively waiting for the funds to flow their way. They are out there aggressively working the system. In addition to walking the floors of Congress, they're sponsoring or participating in events, to position themselves for when the dyke breaks and the federal funds are released.

Late last year I participated in a conference in Philadelphia on homeland security. In attendance were representatives of companies that developed technologies or services geared towards homeland security. I was part of a three-person panel that discussed the creation of the new Department of Homeland Security. My comments were limited to the needs and concerns of the fire service with respect to the new department (FEMA's role, the future of the FIRE Grant program, and the need for a narrow definition of a first responder). Recognizing that the group was interested in more than policy matters, I offered my assessment on the types of tools and training needed by first responders.

Another panelist, a Congressional aide discussed Congress's role, suggesting that a separate authorizing committee might be formed specifically for homeland security issues. The third panelist, a bright individual who formerly worked on Capitol Hill but now worked for a consulting firm, discussed which members of Congress were holding the purse strings and which offices within the new department will administer the grant programs. He offered insight on procurement process. Care to guess who received the bulk of the questions from the audience? Not I, nor the Congressional aide.

The audience was there for one reason: to discover the whereabouts of the funding stream, more specifically the mouth of this fiduciary river. They wanted information on the procurement process and how they could position their products to score the huge federal contracts. Never mind the actual needs of those in the trenches, the first responders who will respond to the next terrorist attacks.

Although the new department lacks the bricks and mortar, it has a charter, a mission, established by Congress and approved by the President to prepare our nation for the next September 11th. We have a Secretary unanimously confirmed by the Senate who will bring to the department impressive credentials. Tom Ridge is an excellent choice for the position. No one is more qualified than he. But as Senator Arlen Specter opined following confirmation of Secretary Ridge, the Secretary has the toughest job in Washington. It's been over 50 years since the federal government has undergone an overhaul of this magnitude. Competing interest groups will be inundating Secretary Ridge and his deputies with information seeking to stake their claim to a role in the new department. In a lean economy, they see the new department as their golden egg to revive their business and increase their revenues.

For the fire service, the greatest challenge is to protect existing programs that have served us well (ie, the FIRE Grant program) and to maintain an active presence within the new department. We need Secretary Ridge to understand how he can best serve the interest of those in the trenches. Never mind what the beltway bandits say. Secretary Ridge needs to hear from us, the types of training and equipment we require to do our jobs effectively, while minimizing the risks we may encounter in our work.

It was a setback for the fire service when Joe Allbaugh announced his resignation as FEMA Director. I doubt we will ever fully recognize the extent of his contributions to public safety. He alone saved the FIRE Grant program from extinction when the Office of Management and Budget attempted to eliminate it on two separate occasions. Humble to a fault, especially in this town, Director Allbaugh never hesitated to pick-up the phone and call the President directly whenever he wanted something for the fire service. Yet did you ever see Joe Allbaugh take credit for anything he did? Never.

Fortunately, Secretary Ridge shares a similar appreciation for our nation's first responders. As Governor of Pennsylvania, he was a tireless advocate for legislation benefiting the Pennsylvania fire service. At fire service functions, he would speak on a first name basis with many attendees. And he would often lend his support to public safety initiatives.

As the Homeland Security Secretary, he will not require education on the needs and capabilities of the fire service. Those who know him speak admirably of his integrity and principles. In private conversations, he has pledged his support to our nation's firefighters and understands the types of programs that can best address our needs. Exuding confidence, he gives us every reason to believe that he will not let us down.

In addition to Secretary Ridge, we have Dave Paulison, who was recently appointed as Chief Operating Officer of the FEMA. Chief Paulison, who will continue to serve as U.S. Fire Administrator, will be our point person within the new department, our voice. In less then two years on the job, Paulison has received many plaudits for his leadership of USFA. Instead of pushing papers, Paulison has done what should be expected of every key Administration official: interact with their core constituencies. He attends trade shows and conferences, and intra-agency meetings. By doing this, he has a firm grasp of the potential role FEMA can assume within the new department.

With Secretary Ridge and Chief Dave Paulison, we have two leaders who will advance our agenda and protect our interests as we embark on this new journey we call homeland security. Yet we must continue in our efforts to advocate our needs to them, as well as to our lawmakers. We must not allow special interests to dictate the course of action on the homeland security front. We know what's best for us. We just need to make sure to speak our minds and never allow anyone else do the talking for us.

While putting the finishing touches on this article, one of my assistants handed me a announcement for a homeland security summit in Washington, DC. According to the materials, the conference "is designed to strategically position you [your company] to gain the latest insight on government and corporate spending, secure qualified leads, and land strategic contracts to propel your business forward."

I rest my case.